Foot-and-mouth disease is a clear and present danger to the Australian livestock industry. If foot-and-mouth disease enters Australia, our exports will be suspended for several years, which will cost the industry $80 billion.
This will be devastating to rural communities. Farmers will not survive. Regions will be decimated. The country will suffer as a whole. The federal government will be on the hook for huge social security and assistance packages, as well as for compensation for culled animals. The animals would like to express their desire to not be shot and burned.
This will not only bankrupt farmers; it will negatively impact the affordability of meat protein. If you think meat is expensive now—once we destroy a large part of the Australian beef industry, prices will go beyond the means of everyday Australians to afford meat. This is not a rural issue. Foot-and-mouth disease will affect every Australian through the cost of meat and dairy and through the additional burdens on the taxpayers to meet compensation and social security expenses.
Minister Watt’s response to foot-and-mouth disease has been half-baked and, quite honestly, dangerous. He has also, I believe, misled the Senate. I gave the minister a chance to correct and clarify his remarks, in a letter hand delivered to the minister last Friday requesting an attendance by close of business last Monday. The minister ignored that letter. The minister must attend the Senate to explain answers that he has given to my question without notice; they could constitute a misleading of the Senate.
Last Wednesday, 27 July, in questions without notice, my first question was in respect to the foot-and-mouth disease vaccine being held in the UK and read, in part: ‘If foot-and-mouth disease arrives in Australia, the short-term response would be to start vaccination.’ The minister’s reply included the statement: ‘The reason you don’t vaccinate is that you are then deemed by the rest of the world as having foot-and-mouth disease.’
As a result of that misleading reply from Minister Watt, I have had to contend with suggestions on social media that I was advocating for a measure that would destroy our beef industry. I said no such thing. The minister was given an opportunity to correct the record, and he has not.
Minister Watt also stated that ‘what we are actually prioritising in relation to the supply of vaccines at the moment is providing them to Indonesia to keep the disease out, and that is why we want to support the vaccine rollout in Indonesia’. I of course support assisting Indonesia with their foot-and-mouth disease response. They’re neighbours of ours. We need to support them. We also need to support them for humanitarian reasons. However, I might make the observation that this response presupposes that we know the strain in Indonesia and can access that vaccine if suitable. If we know the Bali strain, then why are we not placing the same vaccine we are giving to Indonesia here in Australia right now, in case one of the travellers returning from Bali has brought foot-and-mouth disease with them?
Minister Watt went on and made the statement that ‘we don’t necessarily know what strain of disease we would have in Australia’ and that we need to know the strain before we order the vaccine. If we need to know the strain before ordering the vaccine, then what about the million doses we already have in the UK? What strain do they protect us against, and at what cost? I received a call from the minister’s office last Thursday advising that we would receiver an answer to the question the minister took on notice regarding how many vaccines Australia has stored in the UK, to which the minister gave an indicative answer of one million. That answer did not arrive, and it’s been a week now.
Why are these vaccines being stored in the UK? How much are we paying to store them in the UK, when they should be stored here in Australia? Page 18 of the foot-and-mouth disease AUSVETPLAN, edition 3, states that vaccination is recommended to start within 48 hours of the first detected case, and this may include protective vaccination of livestock in the area surrounding the infection. In question time Minister Watt suggested that the vaccines could be here from the UK in seven days and that this was sufficient. However, the government’s own manual indicates that vaccination would be an appropriate response after just 48 hours. Australia is currently holding tens of millions of vaccines for COVID in complete safety. If we are unable to hold foot-and-mouth vaccines in a similar way, then why not? It seems to be proving easier to get a human vaccinated in this country than a cow.
I’d just consider some other points as well. I note that the briefing last week by Minister Watt’s staff said that the virus stays for just hours on surfaces. Other sources in the United States reliably say that the virus stays on surfaces for a month. Therefore, if quarantine measures are not adequate—and it means they are not—then we need the protection of a vaccine. This is about food security for the people in this country—fellow Australians. It is about food prices and cost of living. It is about humanitarian support for the Indonesians. It is about support for our farmers, for our whole agricultural sector. As I said, if foot-and-mouth disease breaks out here it will cost us a suspension that is estimated to be around three years, costing $80 billion in lost exports. It also will gut our agricultural sector and tarnish our reputation—all because we are not being told the truth and we are being misled, and that compares with a few million dollars on a vaccine, which is the lowest-cost option for us to protect our farming industry and our farmers.
How much does it cost us to store these vaccines in the United Kingdom? This is about Minister Watt looking good, not doing good—all mouth and no substance.